Boy Shot on Freeway Recovering

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Bautista, the 12-year-old Whittier altar boy who was shot in the head on his way home from a Dodger game, will be going home from the hospital later this month.

But the youngster, who has recovered more fully than had ever been anticipated after a random freeway attack, still has a long and painful road ahead of him.

"He has strong faith and hope," said his mother, Ramona, "and that keeps him going."

Until state funds were found this week, Richard also faced being released from the hospital before his parents could prepare themselves and their home to care for their recuperating son.

It has been more than three months since a bullet passed through his skull, severely damaging the portion of the brain that controls motor skills.

When Richard was admitted to Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center on the night of Sept. 22, his family was told by doctors to expect the worst.

"They said he would die or be a vegetable," said his father, Hector Bautista.

During the weeks that followed, Richard, who had dreamed of becoming a world-class soccer player, regained his ability to breath freely and talk. He can also lift his head for about six seconds at a time.

However, he has not regained control of most motor skills. His hands and arms are constantly moving in painful spasms and contortions.

"Dad, my arms," Richard cries out softly just about every other minute. His father, a proud ex-Marine, dutifully responds by gently holding his son's arms in place, sometimes putting a pillow underneath them.

"Sometimes we even have to open his eyes for him," Hector said. "We're his arms and his legs. . . . He needs 24-hour care."

Doctors say they are "cautiously optimistic" about Richard's condition.

"He had a very severe gunshot wound to the head, which has left him pretty much dependent on caretakers to provide for his daily needs," said Dr. Maureen McMorrow, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at Childrens Hospital.

"The way that I usually put it is that he's never going to be exactly the same as he was," she said. "To what extent, what potential he has, that's hard to say."

One promising aspect, what McMorrow calls "the blessing of pediatrics," is that children's brains have a much better ability to repair themselves than those of adults.

The Whittier youngster, heading home in his cousin's car from a Dodger game, was shot by a gunman in a light-colored van for no apparent reason. Despite sizable rewards posted by the city and county governments and Bank of America, the assailant has never been caught.

In October, Richard was transferred from King/Drew to the rehabilitation ward at Childrens Hospital, where doctors have been trying experimental treatments to ease his pain and try to restore his motor skills.

"I have seen him improve a little," his mother, Ramona, said. "It's a very slow process but he has feeling [in his limbs], so that gives me hope."

She adds, "God has done this to him, but he saved him for a purpose. He didn't let him go."

The Bautistas had faced having to take Richard home this week because their hospital coverage, through the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization, was about to run out.

But at the last minute, a state government program that helps severely disabled children, California Children's Services, stepped in to give the Bautistas two extra weeks to modify their house and van for Richard.

"It's kind of a relief," Ramona said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, just hours after learning of the eleventh-hour reprieve. She and her husband still have to figure out a way to pay the thousands of dollars needed to make her home wheelchair-accessible.

Kaiser Permanente officials said Wednesday that they will provide physical, occupational and speech therapists at his home.

Despite their grief and frustrations, the Bautistas say they have felt a tremendous amount of love and support from the public.

"I've never known how big God is," Bautista said, who says the outpouring of support his family has received has made him and his wife, both devout Catholics, even closer to God. "A lot of people have been touched by this tragedy," he said. The walls in Richard's hospital room are plastered with letters, photographs and posters from friends and strangers alike, to offer their support and prayers.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, FBI agents and sports figures have paid visits to Richard. One elderly man, who identifies himself only as "Charley," has taken to bringing gifts to Richard, Hector said, including a plaque that reads, "To Richard Bautista, the guy who will never quit."

According to Hector, "Charley" told Richard that if he "ever gives up, he's going to kick his butt."

That got a good chuckle out of Richard.

It pains Hector to see his young son--who is constantly in pain and frustrated with his inability to control his movements--question God. But he says he teaches his son to pray and forgive whoever shot him. "We just thank God he's with us," Hector said, "and they [the assailant] got their's coming. God's seen what they've done."

Hector often questions his judgment in having let Richard go out to the Dodger game that night. It was the first time he had allowed Richard to go to a game without parental supervision.

"I feel responsible. I let him go to that Dodger game. Maybe I shouldn't have," he said, as he gazed at Richard in his hospital bed.

Richard responds, "Dad, how many times do I have to tell you it's not your fault?"

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